Facebook now shows users trying to buy opioids a government helpline number

Trying to fix a problem.
Trying to fix a problem.
Image: Screenshot
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Starting this week, when US Facebook users search for opioid prescription drugs on the platform, Facebook will direct them to a government helpline. The move comes amid increased government and Congress scrutiny of drug sales on social media platforms.

If you search, for example “fentanyl for sale,” Facebook will show you a prompt asking if you need help at the top of the results. If you click on it, it will take you to the website for the national helpline from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, or SAMHSA.

The feature will also be available on Instagram in the coming weeks, the company told Quartz. “We’re committed to doing our part to help combat the opioid crisis,” a Facebook spokesperson said. “This is one of a number of ways we are helping connect people with resources and communities to support them.” This includes hosting support groups on the platform, or groups for practitioners who are fighting the opioid epidemic, and partnering with local governments to curb the spread of the drugs, the spokesperson said.

The company recently brought on former Obama administration official Avra Siegel to head up its anti-opioid programming.

Facebook says the message will also show up if you’re searching for help, but several attempts by Quartz failed to make the prompt appear. Facebook said it was working with experts to identify the relevant terms and will continue to review and update them.

In April, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) commissioner Scott Gottlieb called out tech companies for not doing enough to curb online drug sales. Facebook’s announcement also coincides with a summit the FDA is convening next week to address the problem, notes Stat, which first reported the news of the search message.

The company told Quartz that it started work on the program before Gottlieb’s critical remarks. In April, members of Congress from states ravaged by the opioid crisis pressed Mark Zuckerberg over drug sales on the platform, in some of the most heated questioning of the Facebook CEO’s testimony on Capitol Hill.